Law | Worldwide | Sarah Zingel

What is radicalization? Approaching a controversial concept

In part 1 of her series on the conditions, process and implications of Islamist radicalization of women, Sarah Zingel develops a definition of radicalization from a criminological, psychological, historical and socio-political perspective.

Although radicalization must not necessarily be associated with religion, recently radicalization has often been equated with Islamism, not least as a result of the Islamic State’s (IS) terrorist attacks and threat to the western society. The IS is a terrorist Salafist group that claimed sovereignty over its own national territory in parts of Iraq and Syria in 2014. It proclaimed a state of God (caliphate) and called on all Muslims to emigrate (hira) propagandizing an extremist interpretation of the Koran and strict application of Sharia law. Although this Islamist way of life limits the rights of women to a considerable extent, there were women with and without a migrant background who followed IS’s call and emigrated to the caliphate from other countries all around the world – especially in the period 2014-2017. Finding an answer to questions such as: what functions women might have performed among the IS and whether they were only victims of a perfidious manipulation, passive followers or even active accomplices, increasingly occupies the Western world. The answers to these questions could drastically change the perception of women in the context of politically motivated crime. Above all, after the victories over the IS at the end of 2017 and its territorial losses, the return of female IS followers with terrorist intentions to their countries of origin and the entry of radicalized female refugees could suppose a so far hidden menace.

In order to analyse this risk and deal with female radicalization science has to investigate: What is radicalization? How common is radicalization in women? What are its causes? How are women radicalized? What is the danger emanating from radicalized women? And how can they be reintegrated into society – keyword de-radicalisation? Within the following series of articles the relevant findings from the existing scientific material will be summarised and first conclusions on the subject will be drawn.

Part 1: What is radicalization? Approaching a controversial concept

The concept of radicalization is not based on a universally valid definition. There are various disciplines involved such as sociology, political science, psychology and criminology; each of them seizing rather different focuses and approaches to the term. In addition, the general public has its own understanding of the term in question and shapes its understanding. However, any attempt at defining radicalisation consensually describes it as a process in which extremist views are gradually accepted, the existing order is questioned and sometimes even violent means are considered justified on grounds of higher aims.[1]

From a psychological point of view, the process of radicalization means a change in beliefs, feelings and behaviour that increasingly justifies violence and self-sacrifice for the benefit of a community.[2] Neumann once described radicalization as „what goes on before the bomb goes off“[3] and thus emphasized its violent objective in form of terrorism. Especially after the terrorist attack of 11th September 2001, radicalization is increasingly associated with violence and Islamism – above all among the general public.[4] This prejudiced view must be scrutinized critically as radicalization is neither necessarily linked to violent acts nor to Islamism.

Others therefore distinguish between extremism and radicalism: As radical is considered who has other socio-political opinions than the rest of society but who still respects the socio-political opinions of others and refrains from active illegal measures, whereas someone is considered extremist when he uses violence to undermine the state’s free democratic basic order.[5] Distinguishing between those two terms is, however, difficult since by nature the individual propensity to violence grows throughout the radicalization process and does not suddenly manifest. For example, a person might have extremist beliefs and plans entailing violence but not yet have put them into practice for whatever reason. His inner thoughts thus are rather extremist, whereas his behaviour is still “only” radical, but defining him as either radical or extremist would in any case be deceptive and inaccurate. It is the German Federal Criminal Police Office that captures very well the fluent transition between moderate critical attitude and violent goal implementation. The Office defines radicalization as

"the increasing focus of individuals or groups on extremist thinking and action and the growing willingness to approve, support and / or use illegitimate means, including the use of force, to achieve their goals.[6]

The definition of the Federal Criminal Police Office illustrates that radicalization is a process and continuous development during which the individual undergoes a change in his personal attitude also regarding the use of violent means. At the same time, the definition establishes that extremism is rather a subset of radicalization than a more serious aliud – hence an extremist person is always a radical one, but a radical person is not always an extremist one. If radicalization finally manifests in criminally relevant behaviour, its recorded as politically motivated crime.[7] Furthermore, by definition radicalization is not only a phenomenon confined to one person but might occur within a community of individuals.[8]

Although radicalization occurs in many forms - for example, in the form of right-wing and left-wing extremism - it is increasingly equated with Islamism due to criminal policy development and media coverage by what radicalization is more and more gaining a dominant religious connotation. As far as religious radicalization is concerned, a distinction must be made between Islam and Islamism. While the Islam is a peaceful religion,[9] Islamism is a radical movement[10] based on the conviction that all social life must strictly respect certain religious rules according to their very own interpretation of Islam. To them our rule of law and universal equality is incompatible with their faith and the will of God.[11] A second distinction has to be made with regards to the ideological, geographic and strategic agenda of any radicalized group – e.g. gender roles, their atittude towards the use of violence, the site etc..[12]

Moreover, it should not be forgotten that the understanding of radicalization is subject to continues change in the course of time (historical understanding of terms). Thus, the understanding of radicalization absolutely depends on the prevailing social conventions. Although divergent views generally fall under the mantle of radicalism, radical views are not necessarily negative but can provide positive impulses and progressive movements, for example, the by then as radical considered movements to ban the discrimination of blacks, to promote women's rights or to abolish slavery.[13]

Moreover, the perception of radicalization depends on the particular perspective. Whereas the community classifies certain views as radical, those who advocate these beliefs and goals do not regard themselves as reprehensible, but on the contrary perceive their movement as a glorious undertaking. For this reason, very few persons affected critically question themselves and their as radical perceived movement when they participate in Jihad[14] and persecute the liberation of the world from unbelievers and the dissemination of the supposedly only true faith.[15] Radicalization is thus a question of changed beliefs and self-perception.

In order to analyse the radicalization process, in 2007 Silver and Bhatt set up a model that is divided into four phases: During the "Pre-Radicalization", origin, education, place of residence, religious affiliation and the social stratum promote radical tendencies. During the second phase, called "self-identification", the individual tries to find himself by looking for like-minded people and by taking to heart Islamist ideologies. Then it comes to the "Indoctrination" and internalization of these ideologies (third phase), which ultimately results in the individual’s fully integration into the radical Islamist group by joining the Jihad and accepting radical duties and expectations that define the individual’s behaviour ("Jihadization" - fourth phase).[16]Based on these four phases the Islamist radicalization process can be systematized. The problem with this systematic classification, however, is that the categorization into rigid phases and the drawing of a very specific, always consistent path is not realistic due to the large number of unknown variables that influence any individual case in real life. It is therefore more appropriate to speak not of a radicalization process (singular) but of processes (plural). These radicalization processes are characterized by unpredictable interactions between society, group and individual and are so multifarious that they cannot be systematized.

The named interactions take place on the macro, meso, micro and individual level.[17] The individual level is characterized by a person who is seeking meaning of life and is receptive to radical ideologies – be it as a result of exclusion, political dissatisfaction or other psychological reasons. Age can also play an important role here. The micro level is marked by the family whose internal ratio may favour or hinder the radicalization process of the individuum in question. At the next level (meso level) a certain (peer) group plays a role offering the individual a safe haven and a strong sense of community. At the macro level, finally, the political, social and economic conflicts of society come into play – factors which may have triggered the frustration and radicalization of the individual and / or the group. All levels are in mutual exchange and influence each other. For the radicalization processes the involvement of each individual in the existing social fabric is decisive. If integration into society fails, radicalization easily gains ground. Within any radicalization process the individuum or group adopts of a new sociocultural reference system with its own values ​​and norms.[18]

In summary, the following characteristics of radicalization can be derived from the previous considerations: Radicalization

(1) is an ongoing process,

(2) associated with fundamentalist and extremist ideas,

(3) based on an increasing propensity to violence,

(4) that can have a religious reference and

(5) concerns the relationship of an individual to society and the state.

Coming up: Based upon this definition and by taking account of recent global developments the next article (Part 2) will deal with the frequency of radicalized women as well as with the methods the Islamic State applies, the role social media play and the inner reasons of women for radicalization.


[1]See Allen, Charles: Threat of Islamic Radicalization to the Homeland. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, 2007: 4.
[2]See McCauley, Clark/ Moskalenko, Sophia: Mechanisms of Political Radicalization. Pathways Toward Terrorism. In: Terrorism and Political Violence 20, 2008: 415.
[3]Neumann, Peter: Introduction. In Neumann, Peter/ Stoil, Jacob/ Esfandiary, Dina (ed.): Perspectives on radicalization and political violence. Papers from the first International Conference on Radicalization and Political Violence. ICSR, London, 2008: 4.
[4]Especially in the USA 11th September 2001 has been a crucial event regarding the perception of radicalization and their handling of terrorism. From a criminal policy perspective there is talk of the post-September11th (see Silber, Mitchell/ Bhatt, Arvin: Radicalization in the West: The Homegrown Threat. The New York City Police Department, New York City, 2007. Unter: West.pdf: preface). In Germany too, this reference day has sharpened criminal policy and legislation (see Schily, Otto: Eröffnungsansprache. In Bundeskriminalamt (ed.): Islamistischer Terrorismus. Eine Herausforderung für die internationale Staatengemeinschaft. Hermann Luchterhand Verlag, Neuwied u. a., 2002: 5 ff.).
[5]See Frindte, Wolfgang/ Boehnke, Klaus/ Kreikenbom, Henry/ Wagner, Wolfgang: Lebenswelten junger Muslime in Deutschland. Abschlussbericht. Bundesministerium des Innern (ed.), 2015: 30.
[6] German Federal Criminal Police Office:
[7] Unterteilt in differenzierte Kategorien (Rechts- und Linkextremismus, Islamismus etc.) wird politisch motivierte Kriminalität vom Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz registriert.
[8]See Zick, Andreas: Extremistische Radikalisierung: Elemente und Pfade von Radikalisierungs- und Deradikalisierungsprozessen. In: Böckler, Nils/ Hoffmann, Jens (ed.): Radikalisierung und terroristische Gewalt. Perspektiven aus dem Fall- und Bedrohungsmanagement. Verlag für Polizeiwissenschaft, Frankfurt, 2017: 21.
[9]See Elyas, Nadeem: Islam – Religion des Friedens. In Bundeskriminalamt (ed.): Islamistischer Terrorismus. Eine Herausforderung für die internationale Staatengemeinschaft. Hermann Luchterhand Verlag, Neuwied u. a., 2002: 31 ff.
[10] See Neumann, 2015: 54.
[11] See Bundesministerium des Innern, für Bau und Heimat (Hrsg.): Verfassungsschutzbericht 2017. 2018. Unter: tionen /verfassungsschutzberichte/vsbericht-2017: 164.
[12] See Bundesministerium des Innern, für Bau und Heimat, 2018: 164.
[13]See Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE): Preventing terrorism and countering violent extremism and radicalization that lead to terrorism. A community-policing approach. OSCE, 2014: 35.
[14] Regelmäßig übersetzt mit „der Kampf”; aus dem arabischen jahada, zu dt. „sich anstrengen”.
[15] See Frindte, Wolfgang/ Slama, Brahim Ben/ Dietrich, Nico/ Pisoiu, Danila/ Uhlmann, Milena/ Kausch, Melanie: Wege in die Gewalt. Motivation und Karriere salafistischer Jihadisten. Hessische Stiftung Friedens- und Konfliktforschung, Frankfurt am Main, 2016: 1 ff.
[16] See Silber/ Bhatt, 2007: 6 ff., 22 ff.
[17]See Bögelein, Nicole/ Meier, Jana/ Neubacher, Frank: Modelle von Radikalisierungsverläufen – Einflussfaktoren auf Mikro-, Meso- und Makroebene. In: Neue Kriminalpolitik, Heft 4/2017: 374; Frindte u. a., 2016: 11; McCauley/ Moskalenko, 2008: 418.
[18] See Jäger, Herbert/ Böllinger, Lorenz: Studien zur Sozialisation von Terroristen. In: Jäger, Herbert/ Schmidtchen, Gerhard/ Süllwold, Lieselotte: Lebenslaufanalysen. Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen, 1981: 232; Zick, 2017: 27.


Sarah Zingel

Sarah Zingel holds a Bachelor's degree in European Legal Linguistics with a focus on International and European Law from the University of Cologne. After subsequently completing her law studies, she is currently about to pass her first Legal State Examination with utmost success, specializing in criminal law and criminology. Besides her studies, she works as a research associate at a renowned Cologne law firm, primarily dealing with data protection, contract and company law. From February 2020 onwards, she will pursue a two LLM degrees in Criminology and Corporate and Commercial Law at Maastricht University.